19 Apr 2024

Boeing planes not about to start 'falling apart in the sky' - expert

10:53 am on 19 April 2024
Air New Zealand Boeing 787 Dreamliner

An Air New Zealand 'Dreamliner'. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An aviation expert says Boeing-made planes are not about to start "falling apart in the sky", but notes a marked change in tone from the under-fire manufacturer.

Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour testified in the US Senate on Thursday, detailing his concerns about how Boeing aircraft are being put together.

Salehpour, an engineer with four decades of experience - including 17 with Boeing - detailed alleged manufacturing shortcuts he felt were being made and how he was shut down by the company after raising them.

Boeing was already facing scrutiny after part of a new Boeing 737 Max 9 flown by Alaska Airlines broke off in January, and two deadly crashes of its 737 Max 8 planes in 2018 and 2019.

Salehpour told the hearing the pieces making up Boeing's Dreamliner planes were not being put together properly and that he had seen people literally jumping on pieces of 777 jets to make them fit.

"He has a tremendous amount of experience, so there is certainly a degree of credibility there," aviation and travel reporter David Slotnick from The Points Guy told RNZ's Nine to Noon on Friday.

"What he's saying he's seen is that on the 787 - according to his allegations - Boeing has left just too many spaces, basically. So they combine parts of the fuselage on the aeroplane together, they make them fit, and there's a certain amount of space that can be left - 1/1000 of an inch, 2/1000 of an inch.

"He alleged there was more space than that, that was left, and that can put extra stress on the aeroplane. On the 777 as he mentioned, he says that he saw people jumping and just using inappropriate amounts of force to put parts together."

Salehpour also raised concerns about the 787 Dreamliner, claiming he was then transferred to the 777 in "retaliation", where he found more problems.

"The FAA actually halted deliveries of that plane for more than two years. It made sure that those processes - including the ones that he's raising - were corrected. It inspects every plane before it's delivered.

"So there's certainly a possibility that this is not a problem anymore. The FAA is still going to investigate it, but it may be that this has been solved already, it may have been solved."

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 17: Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations hearing titled "Boeing's broken safety culture, focusing on firsthand accounts" at the U.S. Capitol on April 17, 2024 in Washington, DC. In an interview with NBC News, Salehpour says that he thinks all 787 jets should be grounded to allow for proper safety checks of the plane, which has come under fire in recent months following a slew of incidents.   Kent Nishimura/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Kent Nishimura / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour arrives for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations hearing. Photo: KENT NISHIMURA / AFP

Any airlines that bought the affected planes - such as Air New Zealand - would have been notified and had them checked over, Slotnick said.

"To be clear, the problem here isn't an imminent danger. According to what he's alleging, if this is the case, these planes and the material they're made of are at risk of ageing faster, of having more stress on them.

"But this is the kind of thing that routine inspections, routine maintenance is meant to catch.

"So if he's correct, you know, this could be a problem where a plane that's an airline budgeted to be in its fleet for 30 years doesn't necessarily last that long, but we're not talking aeroplanes falling apart in the sky type nightmare scenario."

Boeing admitted wrongdoing previously, following the Dreamliner crashes, and worked to make amends, Slotnick said - but its reaction to Salehpour's allegations have been "very defensive".

"Boeing is saying that it stands by its manufacturing. It's saying that it's taken corrective action already with the FAA that it believes it's sufficient. It's gone into detail with reporters and in the public about how it manufactures these planes.

"So, you know, it could be a case of 'protest too much', but it is definitely remarkable how defensive Boeing has been."

A previous Boeing whistleblower, John Barnett, died by suicide in the midst of giving evidence in a lawsuit against the company.

To date, there have been no fatalities on any 787 flight, nor any hull losses (damaged beyond economical repair)

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